Spreading liberty by arming dictators? At issue in Cartagena
Jan 252005

President Bush has read a book. That book is The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror, published late last year by Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet refusenik turned conservative Israeli cabinet minister. According to the Washington Post, Bush has since “been recommending the book to nearly everyone he sees, from friends to journalists to foreign leaders, telling CNN last week that ‘this is a book that … summarizes how I feel.’”

I haven’t read Sharansky’s book, but I’m intrigued by one of the ideas at its heart, what the author calls the “town square test” for democracy. Condoleezza Rice summed it up in her remarks at last week’s Senate confirmation hearing:

“The world should really apply what Natan Sharansky called the town square test. If a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment and physical harm, then that person is living in a fear society. And we cannot rest until every person living in a fear society has finally won their freedom.”

This leads us to the obvious question: does Colombia pass the “town square test?”

Well, you can probably go into most of Colombia’s town squares and express your views, as long as they are not considered too pro-guerrilla (or too pro-government, if the town square is in a guerrilla-controlled zone). And you are unlikely to be arrested for what you say, though a member of the Uribe government’s informant network could consider your words evidence enough to have you arrested (you will probably be subsequently released for lack of evidence, though the local paramilitaries still might consider your arrest to be evidence enough to target you).

If you’re not a lone individual in a town square, but instead express your views as a member of an association or an author of a publication, your risks are much higher.

  • Thirty-three human-rights activists were murdered or disappeared between August 7, 2002 and August 7, 2004, the Colombian Commission of Jurists reports (PDF format).
  • Some civil-society organizations critical of current government policies, such as the Permanent Assembly of Civil Society for Peace in downtown Bogotá (MS Word document), have been repeatedly subject to warrantless searches, threats and intimidation.
  • Forty-seven labor-union members, including sixteen leaders, were killed between January and August of 2004, according to Colombia’s National Labor School (PDF format).
  • While none of Colombia’s self-censoring journalists were killed in 2004, the violence began again this month with the murder of outspoken radio host Julio Palacios in Cúcuta, Norte de Santander. Death threats forced another Cúcuta journalist, Antonio Colmenares, to flee the city last weekend.

Speaking out in Colombia is very risky. So risky, in fact, that Colombia cannot be said to pass Sharansky’s “town square test.”

Sharansky does seem to offer an exception to his “test.” Again, I haven’t read the book, but the Publisher’s Weekly review indicates that the author disagrees with “liberals who he says fail to distinguish between flawed democracies that struggle to implement human rights and authoritarian or totalitarian states that flout human rights as a matter of course.”

Is Colombia, then, a flawed democracy struggling to implement human rights? The best way to measure whether a state is “struggling to implement human rights” is to determine how assiduously that state seeks to investigate and punish abuses.

Suffice it to say that there has been little or no progress on any of the abuses in the list above. Worse, as indicated in an earlier posting, State Department certification reports indicate a high level of impunity for abuses attributed to the military, with no improvement in recent years. As of September 2004, only 21 enlisted men and 10 officers were under indictment for any human rights-related crimes; of the officers, only two are above the rank of major. Meanwhile, the attorney-general’s office under Luis Camilo Osorio has come under constant fire from the human-rights community for dismissing effective human rights prosecutors and stalling cases against military officers.

Colombia fails Sharansky’s test. If the Bush administration is truly to take the “town square” precept seriously, then, it will have to make some significant adjustments to its policy toward Colombia. The State Department will have to be more forceful in its implementation of the human rights conditions in existing law that require Colombia to show real progress toward curbing impunity for abusers. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ recommendations for Colombia should move from the periphery to the core of our dealings with Colombia. U.S. policymakers must take a more critical distance from the Uribe regime where human rights are concerned. And those few who dare to speak out in Colombia’s town squares – the human-rights defenders and peace activists, the peaceful reformers, the labor advocates, the journalists and academics who express unpopular views – deserve the support and accompaniment of the U.S. government.

5 Responses to “Does Colombia pass the “town square test”?”

  1. jcg Says:

    While I don’t believe that such standarized mechanisms as Sharansky’s test are of universal applicability with no other conditions or qualifications involved (how many modern countries in the middle of either low-intensity civil war or high-intensity insurgency / counter-insurgency warfare can be said to, realistically, be considered to be able to maintain even a socio-political environment worthy of applying such a test?), I do agree that the U.S. government should put more pressure on Colombian administrations as far as ensuring effective respect for human rights and protection of freedom go.

    But together with the required pressure and the necessary demands must come specific and sufficient aid reoriented towards those areas, which is not currently the case, when most aid is military and/or ostensibly anti-narcotics.

    All in all, today’s Colombia is definitely closer to being considered as a very flawed and historically irresponsible weak democratic state than as a strong and firmly authoritarian police state that gleefully and efficiently crushes all dissent (as a small percentage of Danish activists, for example, seem to believe), not withstanding all that can rightfully be criticized.

  2. Wastelandlive Says:

    Hey Adam,

    Could you share with me some of your personal experience in Colombia?


  3. Wastelandlive Says:


    (Do you do requests?)

    I’m wondering if you’ve got any updates on the Granda case?


    Lot’s of stuff here germaine to our earlier discussion that I imagine on which I imagine that you folks might have amplifying information.

  4. Adam Isacson Says:

    Personal experience – I’ve been to Colombia about 25 times since 1998. Never actually lived there. Most of those visits have been research visits, where you go around interviewing everyone who will talk to you. At this point I’ve been to 12 of Colombia’s 32 departments; the zone I’ve gotten to know least is the Caribbean coast (other than Cartagena).

    Granda case updates: I post links to all the news I see – probably more than you’d rather see – at http://ciponline.org/colombia/peacenews.htm.

  5. Wastelandlive Says:

    More than I’d rather see?

    I don’t know Adam… I’m fairly voracious.

    I’m just looking forward to another post on this affair before it goes the way of the “Para’s” at Hatilla, or the indisputable evidence of US involvement in the coup…

    25 times, eh? Does CIP have any activities there, or do you just seek opinions and compile research?

    Frankly, there’s a whole lot of Colombia that I HAVEN’T seen because it just wouldn’t be prudent. Rather bold of you: do you travel in company? All parties must have honored your credentials thus far, eh? I can’t imagine that kind of travel ever gets boring…

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